Gorbachev’s first official visit to UK in 1984 seen as opportunity to ‘get inside minds’ of next generation of Soviet leaders
Margaret Thatcher’s courting of the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was a complex diplomatic affair involving accusations of violence, unannounced visits and a strained Marxist joke, according to a top secret file released on Friday.
Preparations for Gorbachev’s first official visit to the UK in 1984 reveal the significance attached by Downing Street to improving personal relations with the man expected to be the next Soviet head of state.
Thatcher had asked the Foreign Office to invite senior politburo members to London. In a handwritten comment on a letter from her foreign policy adviser, Charles Powell, she remarked: “Do not invite Mr Chernenko [then general secretary of the Communist party]. It is much too soon.”
The British ambassador in Moscow had warned in a telegram about his experience of meeting Konstantin Chernenko. “It was not the performance of an automaton,” Sir Iain Sutherland wrote, “but it was pretty inept and confirmed the impression that, at least on international issues, the central figure in the Soviet leadership lacks authority and sophistication of thought.”
Gorbachev, by contrast, was recognised as being “intelligent and confident”. His visit to the UK, Powell informed Thatcher, “will be a unique opportunity to try and get inside the minds of the next generation of Soviet leaders”.
Britain’s objectives, another note suggested, “should be to teach him something about how a western democracy works, to establish personal and political links, [and] raise UK profile in Soviet eyes”.
Among preparatory briefing papers contained in the file, released to the National Archives in Kew, is a tentative note by Powell to the then prime minister. “I don’t know if you intend to make any sort of speech at lunch,” he inquires, “but I attach some notes which might serve as a basis. I’m not sure jokes will be appropriate, but in one of his letters to Engels (written in May 1868), Marx recalled that his mother once said: ‘If only Karl had made Capital instead of just writing about it.’” It is not clear whether she ever used the line.
There appears to have been a diplomatic misunderstanding over security guards. A message from the UK embassy in Moscow two weeks before the visit records that Gorbachev “was grateful for the PM’s … agreement to increasing the numbers at the Chequers lunch. He claimed to have no knowledge of the problem of side-arms for his bodyguards.”
Gorbachev and his party arrived in London on 16 December. Minutes of their private lunchtime conversation show it was a frank exchange in which Thatcher accused Gorbachev of funding the miners’ strike in Britain.
“The Soviet Union’s fellow communists who could not get their own way through the ballot box were opting for violence,” she told him. “They were also getting help with finance from outside.”
Gorbachev countered her attack by insisting that the Soviet Union “had transferred no funds to the National Union of Mineworkers”. Thatcher and the mineworkers were engaged in a bitter dispute. The note adds: “After a sideways glance at Mr Zamyatin, he amended this to: ‘as far as I’m aware’.”
A detailed note by the British translator, KA Bishop, present at that and other meetings, provided further insights. Gorbachev, he said, had “great reserves of energy in him, well-harnessed”.
Bishop added: “A roguish twinkle was never far from his eye. (He even winked at me over his shoulder as I interpreted a neat parry of his to one of the prime minister’s verbal thrusts.)”
On two occasions, when the fate of dissidents inside the USSR was raised, the “unemotional mask” slipped. At the official opposition lunch Neil Kinnock, then Labour leader, provoked “an intemperate outburst of obscenities and threats by Gorbachev against ‘turds’ and spies like [the dissident Natan] Sharansky, who was in prison, ‘that is where he will stay’.”
Gorbachev explained that his candour was a sign of the comradely nature of the meetings. “But the chill impression left by these instances remains,” Bishop recorded. “We had glimpsed beneath the surface a man conscious of power and ready if needs be to exploit it ruthlessly.”
The day before he left, Gorbachev was being driven along Whitehall when he asked to make an unscheduled stop at Downing Street. The prime minister was away.
“The accompanying Special Branch officer negotiated access to [Downing Street] with the policeman at the barrier (without informing us) and Gorbachev and party walked up.” They were admitted to the front hall of Number 10. “They had gone before any private secretary reached the spot – reportedly in good humour.”
Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist party in March 1985.
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